Franz Liszt was the greatest sight reader who ever lived.

Franz Liszt portrait by Miklós Barabás

After witnessing him sight read, Edvard Grieg exclaimed:

He was literally over the whole piano at once, without missing a note, and how did he play! With grandeur, beauty, genius, unique comprehension. I think I laughed—laughed like an idiot.

Chopin, upon hearing his own compositions performed by Liszt, was dumbfounded:

I am writing without knowing what my pen is scribbling, because at this moment Liszt is playing my études and putting honest thoughts out of my head. I should like to rob him of the way he plays my études.

So what? I’m not Liszt

Yes, but while Liszt was one of a kind, he wasn’t born a great sight reader. He practiced, and that’s something you can do!

But what to practice? What to focus on to actually get better?

This is where I hope the below sight reading tips come in handy — guiding your practice to encourage good habits and help you make the most of your time.

Each one has been a breakthrough for me, and I wish I had known these when I first started getting serious about sight reading.

1. Focus on rhythm

Rhythm is the most essential part of sight reading. If you play rhythm correctly but not pitch, at least you can stay in the right place. The opposite is not true.

If you don’t have a firm grasp of rhythm, this is where you should start. You can practice rhythm sight reading with any sheet music. Just ignore the pitches and only read the rhythms. Later you can go back through and practice reading the rhythms and pitches together.

2. Don’t stop when you make a mistake

So obvious, and yet surprisingly counter-instinctual. When we make a mistake, especially during an important performance, the temptation is strong to go back and fix it. But everyone knows this is impossible – time in music only moves forward. It’s done, shrug it off and move on. (If there’s a repeat, you’ll get a second chance! :) )

Not only is it futile, but it’s actually counter-productive to stop and try to fix performance mistakes. You draw attention to an error your audience otherwise may not have noticed, and you make a second error by stopping time!

Learn how to plow through your mistakes rather than stopping to lament. Your judges will review you more favorably, you’ll better keep up with the ensemble if you’re not playing solo, and your audience will enjoy the music better uninterrupted.

3. Let the most difficult passage set your tempo

This tip I picked up years ago from a wise band director. It’s a smart way to set the tempo when you’re sight reading. (You’ve never heard the piece before, so you can’t use your memory of what it sounds like for reference.)

Of course you’re going to observe the composer’s tempo guidelines, but you’ll have room for interpretation as the performer. The most important thing when you’re choosing a tempo for sight reading is that it not prohibit you from getting through the piece successfully. And the most common tempo mistake made by inexperienced sight readers is to choose one that’s too fast.

The way to ensure that you don’t choose a tempo that’s too fast is to base it around the most difficult passage. While you’re looking over the music just before playing, find the part that looks most challenging. Finger through it on your instrument at the tempo you have in mind and be confident you can get through without making slew of mistakes. If you don’t think you can, slow down the tempo a bit at a time until you have one that works.

4. Learn to look ahead

People are often surprised to learn that advanced sight readers aren’t looking at the notes they’re playing. Rather they already looked at them, and are always looking at least a few beats ahead of where they’re playing.

Think about it. You’re sight reading, so you’ve never seen this music before, save the brief moment you had to look it over before you started playing. If you’re just taking in the notes one at a time as you’re playing them, you’re setting yourself up for disaster. Imagine driving a car and only watching the spot of pavement that’s just in front of your front fender.

You need to learn how to be reading one measure while playing the measure that came before it. The coordination is a bit tricky, but it’s well worth the time investment to learn this skill.

Quotes courtesy of www.materialized.com/liszt

Related reading

How to Choose a Tempo When Sight Reading
How to Recognize Ledger Line Notes Quickly

Evan R. Murphy

Evan is the founder of SightReadingMastery. He studied music and computer engineering at the University of Pittsburgh before moving to Austin, TX, where he currently lives with his girlfriend Rebecca.

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